> Modest MUSSORGSKY - Boris Godunov [TH]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Boris Godunov: Opera in a prologue and four acts ( composed 1868-69; revised 1871-72; revised and orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov 1896)
Main Cast

Boris Godunov…………..Boris Christoff (bass)
Fyodor…………………...Ana Alexieva (mezzo)
Shuisky…………………..John Lanigan (tenor)
Pimen…………………….Boris Christoff (bass)
Grigory (Dimitry)……….Dimitr Ouzounov (tenor)
Marina Mnishek………….Evelyn Lear (soprano)
Rangoni…………………..Anton Diakov (baritone)
Varlaam…………………..Boris Christoff (bass)
Sofia Opera Chorus
Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire/André Cluytens
Recorded at the Salle Wagram, Paris, September 1962
EMI GREAT RECORDINGS OF THE CENTURY CMS 5 67877 2 [3CDs: 69.56+56.13+77.11]


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One wonders if it was a difficult decision at EMI over which Boris to earmark for their Great Recordings series. After all, this Cluytens one is the Rimsky version, and the only real rival to it is EMI’s own 1952 recording, also featuring Christoff and magnificently conducted by Issay Dobrowen. I suspect the fact that the later one is stereo may have swayed it, although Furtwängler’s mono Tristan is in the same series, and the sound on the Dobrowen is excellent. Many critics prefer Christoff’s earlier assumption of this most taxing of roles, and though he is undoubtedly fresher voiced in 1952, the subtlety of the vocal acting ten years on makes this set very compelling indeed. Also, it has to be said that the wider range and amplitude of the 1962 production does have benefits in the bigger moments of the piece, though it does show its age in some respects. Occasionally climaxes sound a little congested, and there is some peaking on some of the higher, louder notes from the singers. But overall, this is a first-rate achievement from all concerned, and certainly gets to the sombre heart of this gripping drama.

Opinions differ about the quality of the Rimsky version, but on the whole it is more colourful (as you might expect) and a little less arduous than Mussorgsky’s original. The presence of Boris saturates the opera, even though he ended up with just two major scenes. A towering representation of demonic madness, this role is the high point of the dramatic bass repertoire, and Christoff is rightly seen as the natural successor to Chaliapin and Reizen in the role. Although the voice is naturally not quite as fresh here as it was in the Dobrowen set, the interpretation has deepened to a remarkable degree. The subtlety of inflexion, the nuances, the marvellous feeling for Mussorgsky’s highly original melodic lines really mark this portrayal out. His great Act 2 monologue, where he sings of his love for his children but is gradually overtaken by memories of his crime, is a model of gripping intensity. The language is used to full effect without threatening the carefully spun musical phrases. Boris’s vertiginous fall is unforgettably haunting, and the declamation in the big moments is chilling and thrilling in equal measure.

More controversially, Christoff opted to add to Boris the two smaller but important roles of Varlaam and Pimen, a triple ‘whammy’ that he had also performed on the 1952 recording. Critics were wildly divided about the effectiveness of this, as Richard Osborne’s excellent note reminds us. "An indefensibly self-aggrandising procedure" complained one; a more recent guide points out that "…despite his attempts at disguising the fact, both simply sound like Boris". It could only be achieved on record, of course, and doesn’t bother me unduly. Yes, it blurs our sense of Boris as a truly isolated tragic figure, but his character is so dominant that I don’t find the triple act a problem – even when Christoff has to confront himself in the final scene!

The minor roles are all cast and performed with great care and attention to detail. Evelyn Lear is a youthful, alluring Marina, and Ouzounov sings Dimitri intelligently and with full, bright tone, though he is no match for Nicolai Gedda’s excitingly virile performance on the earlier set. Cluytens’ conducting has suffered over the years in comparison to Dobrowen, with many finding less ‘drive’ in this later set. The fact is, Cluytens was a theatre conductor born and bred, and the variety of colour and timbre he coaxes from his orchestra (an imperative in the Rimsky version) is admirable. The rawness of the brass in the great Coronation scene is thrillingly Russian sounding, and the supple strings sing their Rimskyan lines with real unanimity – this may not be authentic Mussorgsky, but the effect is undeniable.

Any Boris stands or falls by its central role, and there can be little doubt that Christoff, who had dominated the part since his debut in London in 1949, is as grippingly effective as one could reasonably hope for. I agree with critics who have generally found this later assumption to be more tender and inward-looking, ultimately more moving, despite some vocal brashness. As Christoff himself put it at the time, "The interpretation I have given is substantially the same as before but enriched by the experience of hundreds of performances and by my own artistic maturity". No one is seriously likely to complain at the inclusion of this version as a Great Recording of the Century.

Tony Haywood

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